Cloud Atlas: The Book and The Movie

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell:

A reluctant voyager crossing the Pacific in 1850; a disinherited composer blagging a precarious livelihood in between-the-wars Belgium; a high-minded journalist in Governor Reagan’s California; a vanity publisher fleeing his gangland creditors; a genetically modified ‘dinery server’ on death-row; and Zachry, a young Pacific Islander witnessing the nightfall of science and civilisation €” the narrators of Cloud Atlas hear each other’s echoes down the corridor of history, and their destinies are changed in ways great and small. (Copied from David Mitchell’s website.)

Over the Christmas period we watched the movie, Cloud Atlas and I was surprised at how good I thought it was. In the past I have not appreciated movies based on books, but as I hadn’t read the book (despite beginning it several times) I wasn’t influenced by it and could watch the movie with a completely open mind. It is fantastic – a kaleidoscope of visual delights, the scenery, the settings and the costumes are blazes of colour and drama. It made me want to read the book because some of the dialogue was difficult to follow – words spoken quickly and not clearly and in a sort of abbreviated English (we put the subtitles on!) and there are many changes of scene and storylines as the movie switches backwards and forwards between the six stories, sometimes only showing short scenes.

So after watching the movie I read the book.  Cloud Atlas covers a time period from the 19th century to a post apocalyptic future. It is an amazing creation (‘amazing‘ is a very overused word, but in this instance very apt), at times confusing and at times brilliant. I think seeing the movie first was for me the best way to enjoy it. Where the dialogue and plot were confusing in the movie they were clearer in the book – where each separate story is dealt with in much more detail and I could read the dialogue in the post-apocalyptic episodes slowly and take it in more easily.

But the movie really brought the whole thing alive for me and captured my imagination. I think the book is over-long, at times I began to count the pages of each section wanting it to finish – it’s not a book to read quickly; it requires patience, but on the whole I enjoyed it. I liked the change in style, suited to each time period, moving between straight narrative and letters and journal entries, encompassing historical fiction, thriller and sci-fi.

The main difference between the book and the movie is the structure – the book sets out each story in some detail, whereas the movie streamlines each one and moves quickly between them at times overlapping the dialogue. The beginning and the ending are different, with scenes in the movie that are not in the book. The actors play several roles, which actually helps identify their characters and some of the characters in the book don’t appear in the movie. So, really the book and the movie are two different creations – that complement each other.

Cloud Atlas is about good and evil, about truth and greed – for power and money – and love; it’s about freedom and slavery, about the value of the individual; and about morality and evolution, civilisation and savagery. It’s a powerful book and if it wasn’t so long I’d read it again!

11 thoughts on “Cloud Atlas: The Book and The Movie

  1. Having also got stuck on the book more than once, I’m really interested to read your thoughts on seeing the movie first. I think I’ll follow your example and watch the film first and then try starting the book again. I do like David Mitchell’s writing, and I really want to finish it!


  2. I’ve been tempted to try the book on several occasions but have been put off by hearing people say what a difficult read it is. Which is silly as I’m quite capable of coping with difficult. Perhaps your idea of seeing the film first is the way to go.


  3. I watched this movie recently and was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Truly a fascinating, amazing kaleidoscope. Thanks for the analysis on how the book and the movie differ. I’ve been thinking I should read the book too, so I appreciate the insights!


  4. Margaret – I’m glad you enjoyed both book and film. So often one or the other is much better. In this case it definitely sounds asa though each is worth experiencing.


  5. Despite being married to David Mitchell (the machinist, not the writer), I’ve never felt at all tempted to try one of Mitchell’s books. One could say I’m too lazy to figure them out, but I think it’s just that I don’t see the point when I’m certain I wouldn’t like them.


  6. Wasn’t the movie good? I saw it a few years after I had read the book and could not imagine how it could be made into a movie. But they did a really fine job.


  7. I’m planning to read this for the category, too, and what you say about it being long – the book itself looks average but then I suppose the text is small. I forgot there was a movie adaptation! Well done on What’s In A Name 🙂


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